Blended, Project-Based and Social Emotional Learning at Thrive Public Schools

On a busy commercial street in the diverse northeast corner of San Diego is a big district middle school. Across the street is a former dental clinic that is home to Thrive Public Schools.
Both are pictures of America’s diverse future; a United Nations of education with immigrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Both have committed leaders and teachers but the converted clinic will give you a glimpse of the future of learning–blended, personalized and competency-based.
The entrance to Thrive, a 200 student K-8 school, is a makerspace where students build stuff and work out marble trajectories.

The small opening courtyard doubles as a playspace where primary-aged industrial designers build structures (the young man below said he was constructing a flying bridge).

Active learning is a sign of Thrive’s commitment to a project-based learning school where students “Learn to Do,” meaning students have hands-on, minds-on learning experiences that help them develop critical thinking, creativity, problem‐solving, motivation, communication and cooperation.”Cross‐disciplinary teacher‐created projects enable students to learn through active engagement and “doing,” incorporating best practices from partner organizations including High Tech High and Buck Institute. Following is the advanced section of the Thrive project development rubric.
Project Development Rubric

  • The goals of the project are tied to specific content area standards and 21st Century Skills.
  • Goals are rigorous enough to challenge all students.
  • Goals of the project require the students to use high-order critical thinking skills.
  • Goals of the project are clearly defined and successfully integrate content standards from multiple subject areas.
Entry Document or Event
  • Entry document or event seems likely to engage the student’s curiosity in a realistic scenario.
  • Entry document or event establishes a clear role and task for the students.
  • Entry document or event leads to a list of content-based “need to knows” and next steps.
  • Entry document or event establishes a clear timeline and assessment criteria.
  • Entry document or event successfully externalizes the enemy.
  • Entry document or event engages the students in a real world problem that they can help solve.
  • Entry document creates a thorough list of relevant, content specific “need to knows.”
  • Project is launched with the help of outside person or entity.
  • The project plan includes a detailed description of the various phases with progress checks and benchmarks.
  • The project has a complete list of resources and materials.
  • The project has a well thought out plan for implementation.
  • The project includes a description of student products and how they will be evaluated against the project goals.
Scaffolding The project has differentiated activities designed to help individual students and groups:

  • Work as an effective team on a long term project.
  • Reflect on their “need to knows” and to develop next steps.
  • Understand the content and make use of the resources available (including any necessary remediation that might be needed).
  • Several rubrics are used to evaluate multiple individual and group products based on the stated content and 21st Century goals of the project.
  • Assessment includes input from outside sources.
End Product
  • End product is composed of multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning (multiple products).
  • End product will be used by an outside person or entity.
  • End product incorporates the use of a variety of media.

The Thrive staff also uses a rubric to evaluate project ideas including authenticity, academic rigor, applied learning, active exploration, assessment practices and use of technology.
No Swiss Cheese
On my way to visit Thrive, a foundation executive said, “I don’t support project-based learning because it creates “Swiss cheese learning” with lots of holes.” Thrive founder Dr. Nicole Assisi said there was no risk of learning gaps at Thrive given their approach to blended and personalized learning. While blended learning rotations fill in content gaps, “project-based learning is necessary to engage learners, to build enthusiasm, and support authentic work and exhibition,” said Assisi. She added, “If school is just skills building and no application, where’s the joy?” The following short video explains Thrive’s approach to project-based learning.

Students at Thrive Learn to Learn with a focus on skill building in numeracy and literacy. Elementary classrooms feature blended learning centers incorporating Zearn, 10Marks, Waggle, ST Math and Lexia that allow each learner to progress at their own pace toward mastery of skills and concepts. Following is the advanced section of the Thrive blended learning rubric.
Blended Learning Rubric

Student Ownership
  • Students take pride in their work by producing high quality work.
  • Students can explain purpose, objectives and expectations.
  • Student can present work/learning to community with confidently and clarity.
  • Students know what steps they have to take to meet their goals.
  • Students are self-paced learners.
Teacher as Facilitator
  • Teacher supports students to ask deep questions and find complex answers throughout the learning experience.
  • Student driven learning space (voice and choice).
  • Student led discussions are clearly seen in the classroom.
  • Students’ plans are in students locus of control (not teachers).
  • Groups change as needed (daily, weekly, etc.).
  • Teacher has various grouping protocols (pairs, whole class, small group, independent, online, etc.).
  • Teacher uses data daily to inform next day’s mini lessons or reinforcement.
  • Data is used to create the PLP and help students understand their academic needs in numeracy and literacy.
  • Student goals and data are connect.
  • Parents are informed of data and what it means.
  • Teacher uses data from multiple sources.
Personal Learning Plan
  • T & S co-create goals by looking at needs and data.
  • Weekly checked and goals update as students meet their goals.
  • Parent communication and action steps for how to help at home.
Relationships & Feedback
  • Teacher, parents and students know where they are and where they are going in real time.
  • Feedback and check-ins given in real time both in and out of the classroom.
  • Student-to-student collaboration and student-to-teacher collaboration happens anytime needed.
Learning Tools
  • Students know what tools are available, how to use them and can and have independence with tool citizenship.
  • Clearly defined tool access (log on)/storage/check out.
  • School-wide systemized process students follow when introduced to a new tool (exploration, noticing, expectations discussions, non-negotiables, practice, reflection).
Procedures, Space & Time for Learning
  • Students are fluidly moving through rotations and work at their own pace.
  • Students have opportunities for self-directed learning.
  • Learning happens anytime, anywhere.
  • Teacher doesn’t have to be there to learn.
  • Space is flexible and moves to fit the learning mode.

Thrive teachers chart and explain the day’s blended learning sessions in a Powerpoint (see Jaclyn Vasko’s classroom below, her twitter stream @msjvasko and examples on teacher websites).

Curriculum such as Readers’ and Writers’ Workshop and CGI Math provide collaborative opportunities for small groups to work directly with the teacher, while other students work on Chromebooks or iPads. Watch a short video on Thrive’s approach to blended learning.
Another strategy that avoids the ‘Swiss cheese’ problem are well constructed step-by-step projects for elementary students. This second grade ambassador (below) explained the nine steps to a project that his class was working on.

The middle school math room, in addition to adaptive software stations, features Glenn Jacobson at the math bar (below) where students work out problems with manipulatives. He’s a former Chicago Public Schools teacher who relocated to do what he was learning in his EdTech master’s program. Glenn’s station assignments are visible upper left.
The middle school team uses Google Classroom to make and manage assignments. Math software includes ST Math and Zearn.
A big part of “learning to learn” at Thrive are the student led conferences which are held three times each year. A developmental rubric in each subject helps each student reflect on their progress. Students also present at culminating exhibitions.
Student led conferences are held during a week of half days during which Young Audiences provides arts enrichment.
Thrive is a Next Generation Learning Challenges grantee, which puts it in an elite class of several dozen schools exhibiting well developed plans for blended, personalized and competency-based learning (see NGLC profile).
Assisi started Thrive because she “wanted all families to have access to the type of education that I wish for my own child.” She dreams of “a day when all kids have access to schools that resemble the diversity of our state, the level of care and attention in boutique hotels and the innovation and adaptation present in some of the nation’s best startups.”
The Thrive model combines personalized and project-based learning in a sophisticated way that puts it in the category of Summit, Brooklyn Lab and New Tech Network.
Learning to Be
Nicole Assisi learned and taught project-based learning as an early teacher at renowned High Tech High. She earned a PhD at USC studying college readiness. After co-founding several innovative Los Angeles schools, Assisi worked as an Entrepreneur in Residence for the Charter School Growth Fund who supported the development of the Thrive network.
“Interwoven in all we do at Thrive is an emphasis on students’ self-advocacy and self‐actualization,” said Assisi. In addition to an engaging and rigorous academic curriculum, Thrive is also a community that values Social Emotional Learning, or Learning to Be. Watch a short video on Thrive’s approach to SEL.
“We emphasize self‐regulation and good decision making in the pursuit of ambitious goals, helping students understand that some of the greatest learning can come from reflection on ‘failures’,” added Assisi. Following is the advanced section of the Thrive SEL rubric.
Social Emotional Learning Rubric

Collaboration: Community Building
  • Teachers utilize a variety of grouping strategies that allow for all students to lead, follow and collaborate.
  • Teachers create structures and teach turn-taking skills that empower students to participate thoughtfully and effectively in groups of varying sizes.
  • Teachers explicitly teach and celebrate diversity, modeling what it is to be an ally for underrepresented groups.
Sharing: Empathy Communication
  • Teachers model, narrate, teach and redirect students to use appropriate listening behavior including body language and turn taking. Teachers teach and utilize questioning and connecting strategies that are developmentally appropriate for their students and create opportunities for students to use these strategies to question and connect with one another.
  • Teachers create regular opportunities for all students to share their ideas both in writing and orally. A system for universal accountability is employed to ensure all students’ voices are heard daily.
  • Teachers utilize technology as a means of enhancing communication and teach etiquette for appropriate digital communication.
  • Teachers have an empathetic method of conflict resolution they can (and do) employ when students need mediation. The method is student-friendly and can be adapted by students to mediate their own disagreements.
Thinking: Critically Problem Solving
  • Teachers probe student thinking in a way that inspires them to question, investigate and revise their work.
  • Teachers articulate and model multiple strategies for problem solving and celebrate innovative, out-of-the-box thinking in their students.
  • Teachers celebrate failure as part of the learning experience and normalize it as a byproduct of healthy risk taking. They encourage students to take reasonable risks.
  • Teachers model a growth mindset in their language when encouraging struggling students. They encourage and celebrate perseverance in problem solving and teach strategies for looking at problems in new ways.
Exploration: Curiosity
  • Teachers regularly build in opportunities for differentiation by student learning style and interest.
  • Teachers strategically provide opportunities for students to self-select aspects of their learning environment, content, approach and/or pace.
  • Teachers model and encourage students to apply previous learning to new situations.
Persistence: Resilience
  • Teachers recognize, model and celebrate persistence in the face of adversity.
  • Teachers hold all students to high expectations, regardless of learning profile.
  • Teachers model continuous learning themselves.
  • Teachers celebrate growth and improvement to the same extent they celebrate achievement.
  • Teachers model intrinsic motivation and a work ethic that contributes to student success. They articulate expectations that their students do the same.
  • Teachers model self-regulation, and explicitly teach students strategies to navigate their own emotions and persist through challenges.

Each grade begins with a morning meeting. Assisi said it’s part of developing “Responsiveclassrooms and a culture of belonging.”
Building a Network
“Thrive is a school that utterly walks its own talk,” said Andy Calkins, NGLC. “Their approach to professional learning and to distributed leadership and decision-making in the school deeply resonates with their ideas about student learning,” added Calkins (see 10 Dr. Assisi’s 10 Principles of Distributive Leadership).
Serving 200 students this year, Thrive Public Schools will add another 200 students including high school grades with their second campus. Assisi said they are shooting for five schools in five years. The Girard Education Foundation is supporting the expansion of the charter network with low cost facilities loans.
Thrive holds a free and low cost professional learning day in August to share tools and strategies from the innovative school model.
The Thrive model uniquely combines project-based learning, blended learning, and social emotional learning. It is well crafted and beautifully presented. Add Thrive to your list of schools to visit.
For more see:

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment


Great practical explanations and guidelines for how PBL and blended learning work for your students. Thanks!

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